PRAISE FOR THE MANICURIST-- "Schieber has painted a fine portrait of the struggles and challenges of being different in an unforgiving world. Her characters are authentic and touching. Using language that is at once both straightforward and evocative, Schieber writes a story that you will...

Phyllis Schieber

Mothers and Daughters

I frequently write about the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. My own mother passed on December 10, 2008 after six horrific months and three almost impossibly bleak years. She was just shy of her 84th birthday. During the last years of her life, I was so burdened by the cost and demands of her care that I forgot the woman my mother had been. That woman was replaced by a frail, helpless person who barely spoke and who seemed lost in her own thoughts. When I was not angry, I was frightened by the absence of ability to connect to the woman who only vaguely resembled my mother. I began to record whatever I remembered about the woman who had been my mother before illness took over.

My mother was superstitious. I wasn’t allowed to step over my brother because it could stunt his growth. If I needed her to sew on an emergency button, I had to put a thread in my mouth while she sewed. “I don’t want to sew up your sechel (common sense in Yiddish),” she cautioned. My father would chime in, “What sechel?”  And she would laugh, always she would laugh. My mother was a woman of contradictions. Give her a few days in a foreign country, and she was practically a native. On the other hand, she could be so naïve at time that it was impossible to believe she had been able to survive the Transnistria Death March. This woman who spoke 7 languages and had lived to tell the tale of the Holocaust actually believed that I was not smoking Larks in the bathroom. “Why does it smell like cigarettes?” she said. I shrugged. My story? I was simply trying to see the charcoal filter. Some mornings I would hold my forehead to the radiator and then tell her that I had temperature. She would press her lips to my forehead and agree. She never connected those mornings to my missed math tests. Years later, she was shocked to learn that I had been forging her signature throughout high school, and let’s not even get into the talk my poor mother must have dreaded having with me just a week before I was getting married. After I reassured her that it wasn’t necessary, she said, as she did so many times, “You’re your father’s daughter.” But I was her daughter too.

I loved my mother. She could infuriate me with her stubbornness and her neediness, but she could also touch my heart in ways that no one else could. She loved make-up, and when she reached in a time in her life that she had a little extra cash, she always bought something that came with a special offer. Once I said, “Mom, why do you buy all this stuff?” She smiled and said, “Because once in awhile, you just feel like a new lipstick.” She was right. I could take you on a different journey. I could tell you about the woman whose hardships, losses and struggles are incomprehensible. Orphaned at fourteen and exposed to cold, starvation and brutality, she understood life’s fragility. She dragged her parents’ bodies to a mass grave after they died, a week apart, of typhus, the scourge of the filth that people faced when they were crammed into small places without sanitary conditions. My mother was shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love. I could write pages about that woman, but instead I want to tell you about the woman I knew as a mother.

I loved to go shopping with her. I have missed that for so long now that when I see a mother and a daughter in a department store, my heart lurches. She was the only one I liked to go shopping with because if I fell in love with something that was inevitably too tight on top, she could cast a quick eye at the garment and determine if there was enough to let out in  the darts or even take a piece from  the hem. She just wanted me to be happy, and if it meant doctoring a dress, she would stay up all night to do it. I want you all to know the mother who once, for my birthday, made the same dress for all my dolls—and I had a lot of dolls. I can still see the fabric, a gray paisley that she edged with a steel blue trim. When I woke in the morning, all the dolls were lined up in size place, something that must have been my father’s doing. I never knew that it was a year my parents had barely enough money to pay the bills. I want to conjure up the beautiful woman in pedal pushers who used to wake me early in the morning to take a walk with her in woods during the summer days we spent in the Catskills. She would lean over me, the faintest scent of Pond’s cold cream on her hands, and whisper, “Come, get up mammalah.” I loved that time with her alone in the woods. She seemed so untouched by her past on those walks. She always picked up a stick and used it to push aside branches, clearing the way for me. Once, she stopped, put her finger to lips and pointed. There was a squirrel eating a lollipop. She thought that was just marvelous. She loved sunsets and the colors of the leaves when they turned, each year delightedly exclaiming over the reds and oranges as if it were the first time she had seen such colors.

I will forever remember how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school when I saw my mother, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. I want to remember forever how she fed my father squares of good, dark chocolate as his head rested in her lap while they watched television. I want to remember falling asleep in the living room that also served as their bedroom and hearing my mother heating up food for my father when he came home at three o’clock in the morning from the restaurant where he worked as a waiter. She never seemed to think this was odd.

My mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. But many years later, she discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, an inspirational writer and speaker, on some television show, and she learned that it was also important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” I admired her willingness to learn and to grow. She was charming too. People were drawn to her, captivated by her beauty, and her wit and flirtatious ways.

I always felt her love, and I will miss that forever. I spoke to her every day. My mother stopped speaking months before she passed. “Talk to me, Mom,” I pleaded in these last terrible and agonizing months, hoping to hear her voice. “Tell me how pretty I am. Tell me you love me.” The last time she ever said anything to me, it was a garbled “love you” that would have made Leo Buscaglia proud. She wanted so much to be a good mother, and she was. One of the most wonderful things my mother ever told me was that she had learned how to be a better mother by watching me with my son. It is something I will always cherish.

The last awful months of her life I often dreamed about my mother. In those dreams, she is always young, always smiling and laughing. Sometimes, we are picking big fat blueberries in a field, or making butter cookies, or I am cutting the threads between the scarves that she sewed for a few pennies each. I sat on the floor and read to her as the pink and blue and green and yellow pieces of chiffon tumbled around me, and my mother nodded, listening and humming a song she could never quite remember the words to. I hope she remembers them now because I will be listening for them in my dreams and missing my mother.

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